The Many Meanings of “Organic” – Part I – Green Planet Naturals

Compost, Organic, Soil -

The Many Meanings of “Organic” – Part I

We are most concerned with what makes compost and soils “organic”. Talking about the definition of “organic” in general opens a whole can of worms.  And since we like worms quite a bit, we thought it a worthwhile topic to dig into.  Here at Green Planet Naturals, we make lots of very nice organic compost.  But what does that mean?  What makes it “organic”?  And, do those answers fit with common perceptions of what makes product “organic”?I’ll start by introducing the main governing body for “organic” as relates to food people consume in the United States. While many people buying food look for an authoritative certifying name that they know and trust likeOrganic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) or regional names like Oregon Tilth, the standards for organic food production and handling are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP).  From there it all starts mushrooming. The USDA has authorized eighty five certifying agents to approve and certify operations to the USDA’s NOP standards. 49 of these are based in the U.S. and 36 are based in foreign countries. And, while most certifying agents are directly accredited by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP), 20 of these certifying agents are authorized through recognition agreements between the U.S. and foreign governments. While independent organizations, OMRI follows the NOP standards and regionally, Oregon Tilth is one of the USDA’s certifying agents. OMRI has posted a discussion of why they are not a USDA certifying agent.  One could spend hours on the USDA and other websites learning how this all works.  But suffice to say, the USDA is at the heart of all things “organic food”.

For the purposes of talking about organic compost first, I’ll narrow the discussion a bit.  There are particular rules that are provided by the USDA’s National Organic Program for what makes organic compost. Of course, this requires I mention that organic compost and soil products cannot really be “certified”.  They can only be “listed” as organic, or you might also see wording such as “registered”.  Green Planet Naturals organic compost is listed or registered with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA – a USDA Certifying Agent) Organic Food Program as suitable for use in certified organic food production and handling. To grasp the depth of regulations around this take a look at the lengthy code for the USDA’s National Organic Program.  [Of course at the bottom of this very long page is informaton about the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, which I add only for amusement.]

But I digress.  Here is a snippet of the USDA’s National Organic Program Rule 205.203 – Soil fertility and crop nutrient management practice standard – that governs how we at Green Planet Naturals make our organic compost. We use the windrow system of making compost:

Compost. The product of a managed process through which microorganisms break down plant and    animal materials into more available forms suitable for application to the soil. Compost must be produced through a process that combines plant and animal materials with an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1. Producers using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 °F and 170 °F for 3 days. Producers using a windrow system must maintain the composting materials at a temperature between 131 °F and 170 °F for 15 days, during which time, the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

While we could, we at Green Planet Naturals never use yard waste (not even our own) because of some potential challenges with just a few herbicides on the market that tend not to degrade during the thermophylic cycle (heating process) that reduces pathogens and removes most weed seeds.  But more on that later.I think I’ll stop here for today and let readers absorb this groundwork information about what goes into calling a product related to food “organic” in this country. Of course much more could be said about how organic compost is made, what “feedstocks” are approved, what is required by certified organic food growers, and what role the state departments of agriculture plat, not to mention a whole other topic on what is required for bagged soils to be called “organic”. Stay tuned for Part II of this discussion.
Linda Brown


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